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“Among the Living and the Dead” by Inara Verzemnieks (book review)

January 29, 2020

On the surface, this is a memoir of the child of Latvian expats about her return to the ancestral homeland so see the old family farm and come to know the country of her origin.  In it she traces in ever-greater depths the family history, its accomplishments great and small in prewar Latvia, its tragedies and exile, its ultimate return, the final settlement of the refugees in Tacoma.

That’s the surface, the story, powerfully and poignantly told.  The depth is so much greater.  Every paragraph has the depth of a poem, to be taken in slowly and thoughtfully, because it will have great weight on everything that comes after.  Every word carefully chosen, nuanced for a particular feeling, so that the reader is transported to, say, a first day in the old house:  “The dust tasted like the passing years, bits of hair, particles of skin, molecules of worry, specks of joy.”  Or a recollection of exile:  “Was your life in Siberia all sadness?”  “Not at all.  People laughed.  There were dances.”  “Did you feel joy?”  “Now, I wouldn’t go that far.”

Or life under dictatorship:  “. . . they all began to learn that lying could be a kind of truth.  And when truth can be lies, and lies can be truth, then uncertainty is destabilized, but so is uncertainty.”

It helps to have an understanding of the utter upheaval of eastern Europe, the Baltic states, the ebb and flow of Nazi armor through Latvia, and the ultimate victory of the Soviet state. But if you haven’t got that, after you are done reading, you will.  You will share something with those who suffered and survived it.  With them you will for decades in exile of returning to your hereditary farm, your home.  In the end, the reality of it all is this:  you can’t go home again.

This is a rare book indeed, in which every page, every paragraph, every sentence is written with such care, the reader cannot help but be immersed in this true story of exile and loss, of recovery and redemption.

Among the Living and the Dead” by Inara Verzemnieks.  W. W. Norton Co. 2017

On Impeachment

January 25, 2020
SF City Hall 1.24.20.JPGSan Francisco City Hall, third day of impeachment proceedings


The Members of the House are bound by the oaths they have taken to uphold the Constitution, and are under a particular obligation to address impeachable offenses, irrespective of whether their bill of impeachment may or may not lead to a conviction in the Senate.

It’s clearly stated in the Constitution that Senators sitting for trial of impeachment “shall be on Oath or Affirmation,” long established by precedent found in Rule XXV of the Senate Rules in Impeachment Trials provides the text: ”I solemnly swear (or affirm) that in all things appertaining to the trial of ____, now pending, I will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws, so help me God.”

Most of us, when induced to swear an oath—say, when serving on a jury or as a witness in a trial, or accepting a position of authority in government—most of us, I think, at least briefly consider that such a swearing-in is reflective of our own sense of personal honor.  That our word, and our judgment when called into play, has some value outside the satisfaction of our immediate desire, our need to influence the outcome.

We are left to wonder whether such a swearing-in, such an oath, has any meaning whatsoever.  Let us tell our Senators, to us it does.  We expect them to honor their Oath of Impartiality.


Serendipity, or fate? Playwrights of a unique subject meet

January 24, 2020

In the nature of serendipity, I have found a new friend whose interest in the theatrical presentation of aspects of the life and death of Raoul Wallenberg parallel my own. His for many more years than mine, and to better expression in a script.

I have a play of my own–“The Wallenberg File”–co-written with Morris Wolff, based on the 1985 trial in US District Court wherein Mr. Wolff and company successfully sued the Soviet Union for the safe return of the abducted diplomat and $39 million in damages. Carey’s play looks at the Wallenberg story from a different angle, at the way men in positions of power use the lives of others to advance their own agendas. Not entirely a new concept to the citizens of the US, as we watch the Trump impeachment unfold.

We were at the SF Playwrights Center for scene reading–my first visit ever, with the MS of my own play in hand, though I would not have put it forward tonight, my first night, waiting to see how the “scene night” unfolds, what is expected, and what happens.

What happened is, Carey’s play was about the fourth to be scene-read. The opening scene, it looked in on the shady machinations of a Soviet bureaucrat and a Swedish ambassador, as they cat-and-moused their way through an initial meeting to decide what to do with Wallenberg, who the Soviets had kidnapped and the ambassador was at least showing that he was trying to negotiate the man’s release.

We see two mid-level bureaucrats trying to seize on how this man’s life can enhance, skillfully used, can be put to work advancing their own careers. Anything familiar here?

When Carey’s scene-read was done, I turned around (he was sitting behind me in the black-box) showed him the title page of my own work, and said “We have to talk later.” More on that to come. . . . .

Advice to a young writer from Louisa May Alcott

January 20, 2020

Quoted from Life, Letters, and Journals, ed. Ednah D. Cheney, p.399-400

To Mr J. P. True

Dear Sir,

I never copy or “polish,” so I have no old manuscripts to send you; and if I had it would be of little use, for one person’s method is no rule for another. Each must work in his own way; and the only drill needed is to keep writing and profit by criticism. Mind grammar, spelling, and punctuation, use short words, and express as briefly as you can your meaning. Young people use too many adjectives and try to “write fine.” The strongest, simplest words are best, and no foreign ones if it can be helped.

Write, and print if you can; if not, still write, and improve as you go on. Read the best books, and they will improve your style. See and hear good speakers and wise people, and learn of them. Work for twenty years, and then you may some day find that you have a style and place of your own, and can command good pay for the same things no one would take when you were unknown.

. . . I have so many letters like you own that I can say no more, and give you for a motto Michael Angelos’s wise words :Genius is infinite patience.

Your Friend, L. M. Alcott

[Quoted from the book “Louisa May Alcott: Life, Letters, and Journals” pubished shortly after her death provides much insight into the life of a woman writer in the 1800s, now much in view in the current film version of “Little Women.”]

“It will be far more difficult to undo than to do.”–Alexander Hamilton

January 14, 2020

Alexander Hamilton was one of many astute statemen who came to be known as the “Founding Fathers” who created the Constitution and the “American way of life” that we have become accustomed to under its direction. He was recognized as such long before the current hit musical bearing his name became the cultural phenomenon of the current decade.

His words and ideas warrant your attention—it will be a study—so when we share a few here, bear in mind that he has a much greater legacy to be reckoned with. Many of them have great resonance in critique of the current political situation that is threatening to destroy our government.

“. . . . though obstacles and delays frequently stand in the way of adoption of good measures, yet when once adopted they are likely to be stable and permanent. It will be far more difficult to undo than to do.”

Think about those last words again, in terms of what has been done—in the matter of allowing the electoral college to elect a patently unfit man to the high office of the presidency. The current impeachment and impending trial, is a direct result of an outdated “once adopted they are likely to be stable and permanent” electoral college majority that overwhelmed the choice of a clear majority of American voters in 2016.

Undoing that result has been, and will continue to be, far more difficult that the MAGA crowd’s attaining it. Are you up for the task?

A writer from his earliest days

January 10, 2020

Our childhood interests, if they are strong enough, shape our lives. Speaking for myself, my first “book” (stapled sheets of typing paper with a short—very short, since I had just learned to write) was “published” (i.e. handed to my parents, my very first readers, who thoughtfully saved it so that here ir is 63 or so years later) along about 1958. Did this mean I was an author? Hardly, but it did indicate that I had some self-image as one at the tender age of eight or so.

A few years later, I had handwritten, 30 pages or so, a draft of a novel about Vikings, that (thankfully) disappeared about 1961, when I would have been ten. In college, I photocopied handwritten single-sheets of an underground newspaper, which I posted on bulletin boards around the campus, quickly destroyed (again, thankfully). Did that make me a publisher? Later on in college, I had a handwritten draft of a history of political history, 60 or so pages, also thankfully disappeared. Did that make me a historian?

And then, thirty-odd years later, I started my Tom Crean trilogy, then published it under the imprint of Terra Nova Press. Now I was an author, a historian, and a publisher. All these things were hinted at in my scribblings from my very earliest years.

They were never thought of as a career track. I ended up in construction, built things, and eventually ended up in designing structures. My design business that actually pays the bills (writing does not) was the result of a planned career track.

But it is the writing and publishing part that fulfills me most, and that part was pretty clear to me, apparently, as soon as I could write.

Theodore Roosevelt: On the Presidency

January 8, 2020

Theodore Roosevelt, Republican President from 1901 to 1909, had an insider’s view of the Oval Office. He did not view it as a private sanctuary from which to issue edicts and appoint unqualified people to positions of power and influence, solely because they might enhance his own self-image of power and wealth.

Among Roosevelt’s many thoughtful insights:

“The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole.

“Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile.

“To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else.”

–Theodore Roosevelt, Kansas City Star (7 May 1918)–